Sep 13 2011

Deaths on a Sunday

I am terrified of backwards reincarnation. It is probably not number one in most peoples fears. More prosaic and unoriginal ones like cancer and car crashes possibly top the fear Top Ten but right now at 11.30 on a Sunday morning I am petrified of going back in time and waking up lice covered, chained and doomed in a cell at Lancaster Castle.

It is National Heritage weekend-places not normally open to the public are free to nose around and ones which normally charge are free, hence myself and a slightly befuddled baby are staring into the thick thick black of a cell where many people died. You can be locked up in there for a whole minute to have a Full Terror Experience-I decline and the people who smilingly enter look different when they come out-a bit of the sheen has been knocked off them and they are quieter. And probably in need of a double gin.

The past was really quite spectacularly terrible.  I feel slightly fobbed off in an age where Katie Price is headline news. We traipse around the castle listening to the cheery Geordie voice of the guide regaling us with all manner of treachery, betrayal, murders and uprisings- more people were sentenced to be hung here than at The Old Bailey in London and if you look up at the ceiling in the old court room, you can see gilded embossed nooses. A nice touch worthy of a psychopathic Laurence Llewellyn Bowen.

The pedant in me winces when hearing the story of the Lancaster witches cheerily told as truth, even down to shape shifting familiars as I feel this does a disservice to the innocent who died hideous deaths due to superstition, ignorance and malice. And I normally love a bit of superstition, ignorance and malice on a Sunday morning.

And talking of which-our next stop is St Thomas and Elizabeth Catholic church in Thurnham, formerly the private chapel of the Dalton family. A mausoleum gapes creepily open; only four spaces filled. I should feel somewhat cheated if I was one of the four interred, have a sneaking suspicion that my other relatives have somehow escaped death and are mocking my gullibility and naivety at embracing it so easily.

Inside the lavishly decorated church some elderly women are offering cups of tea and cakes like the last 100 years has never happened and discussing the surprising wetness of the tea towels.

There are treasures on display, glamorous kitsch Catholic ones replete with their own bloody histories of theft and death. It is turning out to be an excellent Sunday morning.

The wind has risen further and it is suddenly darkest dankest winter. Our last stop is the wind battered octagonal chapter house at Cockersands Abbey which was strangely enough used as a mausoleum by The Daltons of Thurnam Hall, whose church and mausoleum we have recently visited. A jolly grey haired woman pops up like a guardian elf in waterproofs and tells me the floor is on a higher level because of the mounds of dead underneath. The dead at St Thomas’s give a muffled cheer. It is a far less genteel resting place than the green peacefulness at Thurnham. A big gothic car boot sale, all tumbled old relics, faded inscriptions on weather-beaten stones haphazardly piled against the grey stone walls. It is exciting in its shambolicness, in the lack of artifice, brochures for sale or history tucked neatly away behind glass. Here history has been pulled in by inexperienced passionate hands from the elements who wail and howl outside as the sea churns and threatens and it is a very very real threat that soon this outcrop of history perched on the edge of the sea will soon be swallowed by it and it will only be remembered on laminated sheets looked at by the bored or curious on windy Septembers when history is free and the ground is quietly and slowly being washed away.

May 9 2010

Glasson Dock and Cockersands Abbey

I love the works of MR James. He was an eminent historian at Oxford and renowned in his time for his meticulous research into the medieval period. He also almost as a sideline wrote ghost stories. Ghost stories where no blood was ever spilt, only darkly alluded to and bumbling academics who only believed in truth, evidence and tweed would stumble across a holy relic on a windswept historical place of importance, jovially pop it in his tweed pocket not listening to any dire warnings from mumbling anxious yokels and then suffer the consequences of dark history and dark forces trying to reclaim what was rightfully theirs.  And rational scholar tweed man realises that not everything can be relegated, categorised and understood.

Which is the scariest thing of all.

A View From A Hill is my favourite. I have read the story and watched a TV adaptation of it-his books work better with their oh so fastidious stiff upper lip Englishness of a time now gone rather than the rather garish TV which has to show you not allude-and of course one’s imagination is the darkest thing of all.

A View From A Hill is about a historical academic specialising in the medieval period (I told you! They ALL are!) who comes across some binoculars when studying in some crumbling country manor. He goes for a walk and looks through the binoculars to see a glorious abbey rich in complexity, detail and utterly real and existing. He touches it, he draws it, and he knows it should not, does not exist in his present. Then a shadow appears…

Cockersands Abbey made me yearn for and fear those binoculars. I feel so alone, so at the mercy of Nature that I feel a bit scared and agoraphobic. It was meant to be a short cycle from Lancaster along the cycle path past the wonderful prehistoric Conder Green, all marshy tufts, boat skeletons (and The Stork, an utterly excellent pub specialising in of course, South African cuisine) through to Glasson Dock, a weird yet sublime place, boat masts reaching to the skies yet no sea, ice creams, motor bikers, hundreds of them it seems, a couple of pubs, a café, no particular centre but water, canal, fisherman’s cottages, graves, boats in a pleasing trippy jumble like a dream of a place you once visited.

But we are not having an ice-cream today-we leave the pleasantness of Glasson Dock and cycle forth into the past.

Through fields, past farms, cows and then sea, sand, quicksand at that, howling mean wind, rubbish which somehow seems exciting when it’s sea tossed battered plastic, desolation and wilderness. I feel agoraphobic when all I can see is unfriendly coast and behind me sulks the huge blue presence of the Trough Of Bowland. No synthetic strawberry ice creams here. No inane chat and roar of Kawasaki’s. It feels a long long way from home-I have cycled 7 miles from bustling Lancaster, a city.

And black clouds loom overhead. And the cows are starting to look malevolent.

And we come, past the lighthouse, past the signs telling us this might all be soon lost to the sea, past the campervan (how the hell do they sleep at night-its like the beginning of a horror movie, the garish vulnerable synthetic white starkly hideously exposed on the edge of nowhere) to Cockersands Abbey.

There is of course very little left of it-it was founded in the 12th century and abandoned in the 16th. The sheer weight of those years whilst looking at part of it is enough to make you start to gibber.  And why here? Why do monks who love God find His most blighted spots to dwell in-and how the hell did their hoods stay up in this penetrating wind?  (Apparently it was to show renouncement of worldly materials and comforts)

Anyway I wanted those MR James binoculars and I did not. The Charter House was closed, indeed is errantly frustratingly closed, houses only dead bodies impervious to the wind and has been rebuilt but is still such a lonely spooky outcrop surrounded by the skeletons of the abbey, tapering blighted rock formations outlined against the timeless dateless sea and sky-Nature holding two fingers up to crepuscular humanity.

You can see where the huge abbey once stood and we are informed by a notice that metal detecting is forbidden and all I suddenly want to do is METAL DETECT! This bursts forth in a glorious vision of finding ancient religious relics and so I try to find one myself without the aid of a machine but its all-animal shit, grass and stone, not even exciting engraved stone. I yearn yet still fear those binoculars for this is pure MR James territory.

And what is weirdly scarier than the ancient morbidity of a derelict abbey that sheltered and died from the plague and leprosy, was a relatively modern farmhouse (in retrospect, think around a hundred years or two-terrifying a new born child compared to the antiquity of the Ozymandias abbey) built within the walls of the abbey and even containing some of the same brick. Its windows were hollowed up chipboard eyes as it faced the ferocious North Sea wind and huge unromantic aluminium sheds stood cavernously and creepily empty.

A tiny caravan squatted nearby, one of those lamps with a bendy neck silhouetted within looking at something or nothing-it seemed modern next to the blank empty farmhouse, I half expected to see a gnarled angry face stare angrily out at the windswept intruders mouthing silent curses.

The abbey fascinated and moved me but I was trying to look at it through MR James’s binoculars into the past, imagining not seeing. The farmhouse was there.

It actually existed, was board and mortar, terribly vulnerable and naked but for the mere present, actually existing. Existing from the very real future which is about to submerge it in water (the flood defences are not up to the job and are not being given support or cash by a government which has never even been near or heard of or cared about this area) The abbey might soon disappear under the crashing waves and detritus of plastic bottles on the shore and along with it the blank eyed ex farm.

I want to live here, I want a kindly farmer to tell me it’s mine, and somehow the cash to be able to afford to replace the windows (some of the ancient abbey’s stained glass windows have been purloined and are now in place at other local farmhouses, a fact I find fascinating, the amalgamation of ancient history and day to day living, breathing and dying. But should I live here, I would be bowed under wind, remoteness and the threat of the sea.

And ghosts, There must be ghosts here. I would hear on yet another windswept night (there is no other such night) a faint chant of the faithful from so many centuries ago, a requiem to the dead and I would not need those binoculars from MR James and I would not want them because to romantise about death and ghosts and history is exciting and glorious but to confronted with it would be the most terrifying thing ever. Because if ghosts exist, it makes a mockery or untruth of everything we believe in.

Yet I still want this blank eyed farmhouse. Just so I can actually see.  And be suspended between the past and the present. Because there is no future here. The waves will take over and there will only be left a briefly summarising laminated notice board of what was once.

But I still want those binoculars. The future has no excitement or mystery to me. But the past, oh the past…I want to look through those binoculars. But not to actually see.